Their play sets up an intriguing rematch of the 2008 Gold Medal game between Spain and the United States in the 2012 London Olympics. Spain has clearly improved significantly since losing 118-107 in Beijing. They haven’t quite closed the gap, but they do present some match-up problems for the Americans.
Their improvement starts up-front. Three years ago, Marc Gasol was still shedding weight and coming off the bench. Now, after a breakout season with Memphis, Gasol has become one of the NBA’s top centers.
Playing alongside his brother Pau, Spain now starts two seven-footers who can shoot, pass and score with their back-to-the-basket. It’s a devastating combination, similar to what Pau does in Los Angeles with Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum, as the brothers can play high/low and take advantage of which one draws their opponent’s weaker frontcourt player.
Coming off the bench is the newly naturalized Serge Ibaka, who had five blocks in eight minutes against France in the title game. Ibaka’s improving jumper allows Spain to keep its floor spacing throughout the game, and they surround their three elite NBA big-men with a phalanx of long-range shooters (Jose Calderon, Juan Carlos Navarro and Rudy Fernandez).
Along with Ibaka, Spain has Minnesota Timberwolves lottery pick Ricky Rubio and Houston Rockets draft pick Sergio Llull coming off the bench, giving them an eight-man rotation of NBA-caliber players.
To beat Spain, the United States will have to play two traditional big men most of the game. But under Mike Krzyzewski, the Americans have preferred to play small-ball, blitzing their opponents with speed and athleticism. In Beijing, Carmelo Anthony was their starting power forward; in the 2010 World Championships, it was Andre Iguodala. With two legitimate low-post threats, Spain can slow the tempo of the game down and keep the Americans out of the open-court, where they are unbeatable.
The United States only had three big men -- Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh and Carlos Boozer -- in Beijing. Boozer hardly played, while Howard and Bosh were often the sole big men on the floor.
Howard, the NBA’s three-time defensive player of the year, will still be the lynch-pin of the American defense. Spain is likely to play a lot of zone against the US, which means the team’s other big will need to be able to step out and hit a 15-20 foot jumper. That puts Blake Griffin, a poor mid-range shooter, in jeopardy, since the US will hardly need more players who can attack the rim, the strength of his game.
Bosh and LaMarcus Aldridge, both capable of spreading the floor as well as mixing it up inside, are the two American big men whose games best complement Howard. The US will probably want some protection at the center position in case Howard gets in foul trouble, so Tyson Chandler could sneak onto the roster despite barely playing in the World Championships.
Carrying four big men would force the US to make some interesting choices in how they select their roster. That leaves room for eight perimeter players, and six players returning from the 2008 team -- Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul and Deron Williams -- seem like locks. However, there will be a lot of pressure to put two of the NBA’s rising stars -- Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose -- on the roster as well.
If the US brings all their stars, that would leave no room for any defensive or shooting specialists. While using superstars as role players could be a great luxury, Coach K will have to carefully manage the egos of everyone involved.
James, Anthony, Wade and Rose aren’t pure outside shooters, so it seems unlikely that all four could get significant playing time if the US is playing two big men for most of the game. Would Kevin Durant be comfortable playing 10 minutes a game and spotting up from the perimeter? Would Kobe?
The US is still the clear favorite coming into London, but Spain is good enough to beat them if they don’t make adjustments.